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Days after missing chance to upset Maryland, Illinois knocks off Michigan

Fighting Illini won’t be denied this time

Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu signaled to teammates to stay on the court for the final 0.1 seconds. Students remained in their seats after security warned them against rushing the court.

Players calmly walked through the handshake line.

It was a serene finish to a wild game Wednesday night in which Illinois (7-3, 1-1) exploded with energy and dominant plays for a 71-62 victory against No. 5 Michigan (8-2, 1-1) at the State Farm Center.

It was Illinois’ first victory against a top-five team since the Illini knocked off No. 1 Indiana in February 2013.

“We knew we could do this,” said Dosunmu, who scored 14 points.

Illinois started its Big Ten slate against back-to-back ranked opponents, falling 59-58 Saturday at then-No. 3 Maryland after leading most of the game. The Illini had not played top-five conference opponents consecutively since 1987, and hadn’t played any top-five opponents consecutively since the 2005 Final Four.

Here are three takeaways from Wednesday’s victory:

1. Give Kofi Cockburn another award.

The freshman’s monstrous dunk in the second half left the rim rattling for 10 seconds.

After the 7-footer swatted away one of his four blocked shots, his celebratory stomps on the court resonated above the cheering crowd and the arena’s blaring pop music.

Cockburn already has won three Big Ten freshman of the week awards in just 5 weeks of play. After scoring 19 points with 10 rebounds (six offensive) in the upset, Cockburn’s name is spreading throughout the league – even if Michigan coach Juwan Howard slightly mispronounced it.

“His presence is very strong for them,” Howard said.

Cockburn helped Illinois to a 44-28 edge on the glass, including a 15-6 offensive rebounding advantage. The Illini outscored the Wolverines 44-26 in the paint and 16-0 on second-chance points.

Cockburn combined well with Giorgi Bezhanishvili (12 points, eight rebounds) to provide rim protection and dominate inside.

“There’s no doubt he was really good,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said of Cockburn. “He’s still a pup. He’s still learning the game. When this kid gets really strong, the upside is scary.”

2. Cockburn’s improvement at the line is crucial.

Cockburn’s favorite player growing up was Shaquille O’Neal – and Cockburn looked like the notoriously poor free-throw shooter at the start of the season.

Cockburn shot only 50% (17-for-34) on free throws through the first five games. He has gone 23-for-26 at the line in the five games since, including 7-for-9 against Michigan.

“I was kind of timid,” he said of shooting free throws at the start of the season. “I never played in front of that kind of crowd before.”

Underwood said Cockburn’s extra work at practice has helped.

“It becomes a very viable option,” Underwood said. “Now you want to run offense to him in late-game situations and know that he’s going to step up there and make it. I’m really proud of him. He’s working, and put in enough time. He’s gained a lot of confidence.”

3. Illinois played with more composure than it did against Maryland.

Underwood mentioned the Illini’s “attention to detail” a few times after beating Michigan.

He noted they made few mistakes in the loss at Maryland, despite giving up an 11-point lead in the final 4 minutes, 11 seconds. Michigan made an 8-0 run to pull within 66-62 with 2:06 remaining, but the Illini made clutch plays to stay afloat.

“As difficult as Saturday was, to get these guys to continue to believe in the process and understand how important preparation is, I’m really proud of that,” Underwood said.

That’s the growth he has been seeking.

“Maybe tonight,” he said, “is another step.”

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